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Obama's History Lesson

In our bumper-sticker times we refuse to wait for policies that almost always take years, usually decades, to develop.



In a culture famed for our bumper-sticker philosophies, we ignore the bumper sticker we really need: “What we learn from history is that we fail to learn from history.”

Of course, in the time of tweeting and texting, maybe that thought is too long for today's retro brains. When everything seems to be returning power from the frontal lobe back to the brain stem (sexting and “The Simpsons,” for examples), accessing history certainly takes more of the bumper than such notables as “Yes, We Can” and “O, What a Mistake.”

We don't know whether President Obama will turn out to save or sink us. No one does. But if you've followed the world lately you've noticed that the left is turning on its golden boy with amazing ferocity. On foreign policy alone, a Slate editor noted that the president is “the keeper of Bush's secrets.” Civil libertarian Nat Hentoff called him “George W. Obama.” And the socialists said bluntly that “the Obama administration is carrying out a new war crime” in Afghanistan. Last week The Washington Post had a front-page article about the anger of the left's well-known blathering class.

Perhaps more worrisome, a month ago Common Dreams sent out a fundraising pitch titled “A Time for Confrontation,” which included this line: “Seven months into the new administration … hope is fading.”

The president's image is what's fading in spite of his almost constant campaigning, which he's ramped up yet again to attempt to push through his national health care plan. Yet according to the Post, at seven months in he enjoyed the same approval ratings that plagued George W. Bush.

Let's go to the historical tape, or in this case, black and white film. In 1932, in the midst of the last massive economic meltdown, Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats swept into office on a wave of leftist support and passed the famous 100 days legislation that revamped America. 

But by 1935, the disenfranchised, who turned out in record numbers to put the former New York governor into the White House, were angry that FDR's policies weren't doing much to solve the Great Depression.  The famed 100 days weren't so famous when the dirt poor were calling Huey P. Long, a former Louisiana governor and senator, the next political messiah.

Behind the Kingfish, as Long was known, and Father Charles Coughlin, a Detroit priest who first discovered broadcast evangelism, many of the Democratic faithful and most of the new believers had turned against the man we now think of as one of the greats. Roosevelt simply had not delivered fast enough for those suffering from the economic meltdown, and originally ardent supporters, such as Long and Coughlin, by 1935 were calling FDR — at best — a stooge of Wall Street. The poor were still poor and the rich were still rich — though in the 1930s they had the decency not to give themselves massive bonuses with federal money.

Father Coughlin backed Long in his three-hour radio sermons to a congregation of 40 million still down-and-out Americans, at the time the largest audience in American history. His primary political message: America needs the quasi-socialist agenda revitalizing Germany under a man named Adolf Hitler, and the American to deliver it was the one-term senator from Louisiana.

Sen. Long fought off corruption, intimidation, vote-buying and bribery charges by claiming that the people criticizing him actually were attacking his supporters — the poor, hard-working dirt farmers. His threat to FDR's reign came to a halt when he was assassinated in 1935 just days before Long's book, “My First Days in the White House,” rolled off the presses.

A couple of years later, the depression worsened as FDR's rapidly passed stimulus programs faltered. Indeed, 1937 was the worst year of that terrifying time.

Today, many of President Obama's campaign promises are faltering. The national debt is predicted to double by 2015 to more than $20 trillion; gays are asking “where's the beef”; Israel and Palestine are as unsolvable as ever; and energy legislation is stalled. The president's self-imposed health-care reform deadline passed last month under criticism from the left that it doesn't go far enough toward a one-payer system, and criticism from the right, backed up by the Congressional Budget Office, that the administration is cooking the cost figures.

The most ardent backers of “hope” and “change you can believe in” are having second thoughts. Barely half considered is Obama — a new-style politician in one early summer poll, even while almost as many called him old-style — just six months after 76 percent predicted he would “bring needed change to Washington.”

In our bumper-sticker times we refuse to wait for policies that almost always take years, usually decades, to develop. And though we're enthralled by constant campaigning, we become A¬¨bercynical as the slow pace of governing rears its actual, and often ugly, reality. 

Will we, the ever-more disenchanted and ever-more disenfranchised — unemployment is going up, not down — soon turn toward the Huey Longs and Adolf Hitlers of this world?

Are we failing, yet again, to learn from history? S

Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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